Extreme Moderation: Or, Why MLK Would Approve of Edward Snowden

Democracy Science and Tech


Edward Snowden, just like Bradley Manning, has been labeled a traitor and at times an aid to terrorists. It has even been suggested that he might be faking the information leaks, or simply wanting attention, otherwise he would have gone through the proper whistleblower channels. Snowden, some say, should have been more patient; he should have been more careful in revealing the NSA's secrets. Jeffrey Toobin, writing for The New Yorker, claims:


The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it.


This very criticism is actually deeply similar to the kinds of criticisms that Martin Luther King, Jr. faced during the Civil Rights Movement. Taking a closer look at King’s situation then might help us cast light on Edward Snowden’s position today, and political protestors more generally.


In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), King responds to criticism from his fellow clergymen, whom he calls the “white moderate.” They have written to him asking him to stop the civil rights protesting, because it was—in certain cases—leading to violence.


King, baffled that short-term disruption and violence could outweigh the long-term oppression of the African American population, points out the inconsistency in their thought. He observes:


[The] great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”


King is actually making what could be seen as an Aristotelian point. Ethical people, according to Aristotle, have appropriate reactions to situations. In fact the word “ethics” stems from the Greek word ethica, which means “character.” So to be ethical is to have a good character, to have sensitivity to the specific demands and details of different situations, rather than simply and blindly following rules.


Most of the time, it’s inappropriate to have extreme reactions; moderation is the order of the day. Aristotle writes that anybody can feel emotional extremes—this is easy for most of us—“but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way … is characteristic of virtue.” So, to act courageously, we have to avoid the extremes of cowardice (not enough confidence) and recklessness (too much confidence).


In certain contexts, however, moderate reactions are unacceptable, and something that we might normally think of as more extreme is actually the appropriate response. If we’re walking along and we see a puppy being abused, that’s an instance in which it’s good to get angry; in this case, one should take extreme action and intervene.


There are, theoretically, two notable aspects regarding whether or not King’s actions in the 1960s—chiefly encouraging civil disobedience—can be considered legitimate. First, whether King’s goals are legitimate, and second whether his actions are legitimate. For King, the goal was equal treatment of citizens regardless of race or socio-economic status. His actions, as seen in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Selma to Montgomery March, were to disrupt the current order, be it civil, social, or political.


The “white moderate” thinks they are criticizing his actions rather than his goals, but for King these are the same thing. King’s response to the white moderate is that if they properly understood the problem—if they had the right sensitivities and awareness—they would be just as angry as he is, they would know that change needs to happen now. In fact, being patient might result in no change happening because the present “peace” is working in the interest of injustice. In other words, the protest is appropriate because it should disrupt the normal functioning of a discriminatory political system that endorses segregation. The appropriate response is not to casually file abuse complaints but to intervene. In other words: if you think moderation is the answer, then you simply don’t understand the nature and severity of the problem.


So, to say that Snowden should have gone through proper channels, that he should have been more patient and reported things within the system instead of going outside it and creating a massive political disruption is to miss the point. Making it public was the only path that would allow him to effectively report the abuses.


Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance techniques which include, among other things, warrantless surveillance of the telephone and online conversations of American citizens. What Snowden saw as disturbing abuses of invasions of privacy were essentially everyday activities for the NSA. Instead of dismissing them or rationalizing them away, however, Snowden attempted to question them, to talk about them. He reports that the more he did this, the more he was ignored. He states that eventually he came to the conclusion that these things needed to be heard and their rightness determined by the public, rather than by private companies working for the government.


It’s not just that the public should hear and determine the reaction to this information, but that only by taking this information public could he disrupt the otherwise vested interests of the intelligence agencies and the American government. The very point is to disturb the unthinking acceptance and trust that the public has in the government’s activities, for such trust and acceptance is exactly what allows the activities to continue. Only by causing a severe interference can Snowden hope to create a change.


That’s the reason that people need to blow whistles in the first place: there is no other way to effectively challenge the status quo. Making it public might seem extreme, but in light of the whole situation it was the only appropriate response. And I think MLK would agree.



US Foreign Policy, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, MLK